Graphic by Kelly (She/Her)
**Trigger warning for suicide mention, death, and transphobia**
For the transgender community, individual visibility is complicated. For those who want to be recognized as trans, that desire to be seen is at war with the need to stay safe in a society where citizens are commiting record high acts of fatal violence against trans people and where lawmakers are pushing over 130 anti-trans legislative proposals in present day. Others don’t want to be visibly trans themselves, but if their reasons stem from fear or obligation, that choice can lead them into seemingly inescapable isolation. Both these groups, and the others with different experiences, know that to be openly, visibly trans is to open yourself up to the societal prejudice that comes with that; still, many desire that visibility because it also opens you up to recognition and community from your fellow trans people and allows you to serve as an example to destigmatize trans identities in society. What happens when the choice to be visible is completely taken away?
That question was answered for me in August 2020, when my childhood best friend, a transgender man, passed away at twenty years old. I knew the statistics — 82% of transgender people have thought of suicide and 40% have attempted it. That didn’t stop me from being haunted by the why’s that fill your head with when death comes to visit, and particularly, why now? What changed?
I learned quickly that the problem was that nothing changed. He had spent the six years since he came out as trans having his identity mocked, dismissed, and even fully erased by nearly everyone he knew. Deep, societally ingrained transphobia warped the people and systems he interacted with until he felt there was no place for him in this world at all.
When he tried to get a job, nobody would offer him a livable wage unless he either conformed to his assigned gender or completely physically changed himself to fully pass as a man. He couldn’t afford the latter even if he wanted to, and he would lose his apartment without a job. That would take him back to living with his parents, who were still too stuck on the idea of the child they thought they had to accept his truth. Out in the world, most people he met saw him as the gender they perceived him as, and he sensed that even the ones who respected his identity were humoring him because he didn’t look the way they assumed a trans man should look.
He wanted to be visible as the trans man that he was, but he felt that that choice had been taken from him. All of the possible solutions seemed impossible to him after carrying the weight of his invisibility for so long, and all he thought was left was tragedy. That wasn’t the case then, and it isn’t now; I won’t reduce all that he was to tragedy. His story is a testament to the importance of trans visibility, of not assuming that what you perceive is someone’s truth, and of all the work we still have to do to protect each other.
Visibility is not a luxury. It’s survival. I didn’t understand that before he passed away, even when it came to my own identity as a non-binary person. I spent most of my life thinking that visibly flinching when someone called me a woman and waking up some days wanting to straighten every curve on my body were just more ways in which I was a little queer, in the traditional sense of the word. Even after coming out to myself as non-binary, I kept it private. I knew that being visible would open me up to being intentionally misgendered, to prejudice, and to people questioning the validity of my identity if I wasn’t performing my gender, or lack thereof, in the right way.
In retrospect, I was scared, and that fear kept me from finding much comfort in having a name for what I was, particularly on the days when womanhood felt like a life sentence. For him, though, I started making an effort to connect with and uplift the trans community. I began verbalizing that truth that I had always kept guarded, and I let my physical appearance reflect who I was even when I started facing the societal consequences of being something other.
Being visible in my otherness, talking about it and having it validated by the people around me finally brought me peace after years of struggling with a conflicting spirit and body. It’s a gift from him amongst all the tragedy and one I honor every day because he didn’t get to have it. I’m privileged to be both visible and supported, and after what happened to him, being seen feels like my responsibility. I need to celebrate my identity for him, and I need to actively challenge the societal prejudice that still exists today so that others can have the choice that he didn’t.
Visibility is as much joy as it is survival, and both of those things hold so much more good than the damage and grief that forced invisibility brings. Even when I experience what I feared I would before I publicly came out, my smile stays bright because I have a community now that sees me for all I am and validates that. So I fight for the right to choose visibility, for him, for me, and for everyone before, with, and after us.